Animal and Avian Sciences Professor Receives $1 Million to Advance Animal Well-Being and the Poultry Industry

Young broiler chickens at their feeder

Image Credit: Edwin Remsberg

November 20, 2017 Samantha Watters

Dr. Tom Porter, Professor in the Department of Animal and Avian Sciences, is tackling many major global issues as a leader in poultry research with two new grants from the United States Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA NIFA) totaling $1 million. He will be exploring ways to increase poultry yield and meat production while improving the lives of the animals themselves through closer study of natural growth hormone processes and resistance to heat stress caused by severe weather patterns. In this way, Dr. Porter is advancing the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources’ initiatives around animal health and well-being, food security and hunger, and agricultural sustainability in the face of a changing climate.

“By 2050, the world will be in the wake of a large food shortage,” explained Dr. Porter. “To meet the demand of a growing population and combat hunger, it is anticipated that meat production alone will have to increase 43 to 47 percent across the board, with little to no new land or space for meat production. This presents a major food crisis.”

To this end, Dr. Porter has been studying the mechanisms behind natural growth hormone production in poultry for 27 years, with consistent federal funding for this project for 24 of those years. Thanks to Dr. Porter’s years of research, we know what controls production of the bird’s own growth hormone, when it begins, how to target the DNA to control growth hormone production, and what cellular mechanisms are involved.

“If there is no new land for meat production, the best way to meet our agricultural and food supply needs is through more efficient and effective growth,” said Dr. Porter. By inducing the natural growth hormone production process even just a little earlier in chick development, critical parameters like body weight, yield, composition, and feed efficiency (or the amount of feed needed to produce a pound of meat) may be positively influenced, providing more insight into these mechanisms. This is what Dr. Porter is examining with one of his grants from USDA NIFA’s Animal Nutrition, Growth, and Lactation Program.

Dr. Porter’s second grant is from USDA NIFA’s Animal Well-Being Program and is for a new project. Chickens begin to exhibit significant heat stress at sustained temperatures of 95 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. With the ever increasing extremes in our global climate, heat waves with prolonged temperatures over 95 degrees are increasingly common. Significant heat stress not only causes the birds to suffer, but often leads to premature death on a large scale. To improve animal welfare, well-being, and overall poultry production, Dr. Porter is working to perfect a protocol to easily condition chicks to better handle heat waves as adult birds. Eggs are incubated at 99.5 degrees normally, and chicks are kept at 92 degrees thereafter. It has already been established that by exposing chicks to 100 degree heat for an additional day when they are young and high temperatures are essential, you can produce lasting effects on adult birds, cutting heat stress and mortality rates at least in half. What is not understood is how this mechanism works, how this affects poultry production and overall yield, and if the protocol can be optimized with more or less conditioning.

Through Dr. Porter’s continued high-level research, he is helping the college stand as a leader across several major global issues. “I am a physiologist, and really an endocrinologist, so understanding the mechanisms that regulate hormones and stress is what I enjoy,” said Dr. Porter. “But everything we do is to improve the well-being and lives of the animals themselves and to ultimately improve poultry production. That is the key to this work.”